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Faith column: Q&A with Tony Campolo

February 13, 2011

Latest faith column, an interview with Tony Campolo, who will be speaking at Promiseland West on Feb. 20. Had to edit the published version down because of space restrictions. But I’m posting the uncut interview below.

EF: Promiseland West Pastor Randy Philips says you cause him angst (in a good way), that while he disagrees with you on some hot-button issues, your message on social justice in particular makes him examine his faith more closely and ultimately “love Jesus more.” Do you think your advocacy for the poor is resonating more these days with conservative evangelicals?

Yes! There once was a period where many Evangelicals thought the spending of time, energy, and financial resources to minister to the poor and the oppressed was somehow a deviation of the call of Christ to carry out the great commission. Today, there are very few Christians who think that way, and that is because there is a growing awareness of what Jesus taught.

For many years Evangelicals, in their attempt to fight off modernistic theology, concentrated all of their attention on Pauline theology. Being doctrinally sound was essential. This controversy over the core doctrines and the Christian faith rose far and wide, with modernistic theology largely in recession.  In the overwhelming dominance of Evangelicalism among the American scene, there has been among Conservative Christians an opportunity to spend more and more time on the gospels.

Rick Warren, of the famous Saddleback Church in California, confesses that while he earned a doctorate in Biblical Studies, he failed to pay much attention to all the things that Jesus said about serving the poor. He is not alone in confessing such an admission, especially when one considers that there are over 2,000 verses of scripture that deal with justice for the oppressed and ministering to the needs of the poor. Starting with Ron Sider’s book, “Rich Christians in an Age of Power” and Carl Henley’s book, “The Uneasy Conscience of Evangelicals”, the Conservative wing of the Christian church was stirred into the awareness that the gospel is holistic. They have increasingly come to the awareness that the salvation of Christ is an encompassing salvation that provides deliverance from all kinds of oppression and that that includes spiritual oppression, psychological oppression, social injustice, and economic oppression.

Eastern University, where I teach, has been a leader in stirring the consciousness of the Evangelical community to this holistic message of Christ. The motto of the school is “The whole gospel for the whole world”. Its many graduates, such as Shane Claiborne, Jonathon Wilson-Hartgrove and Brooke Sexton have spread the word around the world that Christians are to be agents of God for transforming the world into God’s kingdom. That kingdom requires that there be transformed individuals living in a transformed society. The call to respond to the poor is not diminished by those who are likely to quote, “the poor you will have with you always”, because they believe that the good work that is initiated in us and through us will be completed on the day of his coming (Philippians 1:9). At the core of our convictions is the belief in the triumph of Christ and the finalization of his Kingdom that Christ will proclaim in His second coming

You’re often branded a liberal, even though you have criticized both conservative and liberal Christians. Does the liberal label hinder your ministry? And do you think Christians are starting to transcend the conservative-liberal divide?

To answer that question is to really focus on a generation gap. Older Christians (over the age of 40) still tend to think in terms of categories, such as liberal and conservative. There is a growing movement in America referred to as Red Letter Christianity (see It is overwhelmingly a youth movement, and they wish that no labels at all would be used. But if labels are going to be employed, they reject the older categories that have marked theological debate. Many of these young people studying on secular campuses – which most of them do – find that if they define themselves as Evangelicals, that they are confronted with an array of red flags. Their secular colleagues immediately assume that with such a label, they must be married to the right-wing of the Republican Party. The word ‘Evangelical’ conjures up the popular image of being anti-women, ant-gay, anti-environment, pro-war, and connected with the National Rifle Association. While holding to Evangelical beliefs, which include (a) holding to the view of the Bible, that deems it inspired by God and hence free from errors (b) accepting each of the doctrines of the Apostles Creed and (c) holding that salvation comes only through a personal surrendering of one’s life through Jesus Christ, whose sacrifice on the cross delivers from sin, this group of young people are spread across the political spectrum. They do not see that being theologically conservative necessitates political conservatism. Furthermore, Red Letter Christians are prone to declare that whenever a person uses the Bible to legitimate a humanly created political ideology, that person is guilty of idolatry. The term Red Letter Christians was adopted by this mostly youthful movement from a secular Jewish Country Western disc jockey in National Tennessee who began to see that there were Evangelicals who were into a lifestyle of obedience to the teachings of Christ and hence referred to those in this new movement as people into “those red letters in the bible.”  (i.e. The words of Jesus that are highlighted in red in many of the editions of scripture.)

In answer to the question as to whether or not being labeled as a liberal has in some way hurt my ministry, the answer is that there is no doubt about it –yes!  There are fellow Christians who fail to follow the red letters of Jesus in Matthew 18 which contend that if you have something against a brother, that you should contact that brother and confront that brother directly.  They do not do this.  Instead they go to pastors and leaders of church conferences and make statements about me.  They are based on rumor, and especially rumors that come via the internet.  Too many church leaders tremble at a few negative voices who make ungrounded accusations and hence bring about cancellations.  That bothers me as it limits the opportunities I have to share my personal convictions with others, which arguably is a calling.  What is worse is that I have been the founder of fifteen missionary organizations that are doing work among the poorest of the poor in urban cities and third world countries, and these criticisms and rumors have caused some to cancel pledges that were made for feeding the poor, clothing the naked, and working with the socially disinherited.  They have no idea that people spread rumors that are untrue, resulting in a diminishing of resources available to feeding children in needy places like Haiti or Zimbabwe.  This is a sad thing, and I believe that there will have to be an answering for all this someday before the judgment seat of Christ.

Liberals may not like my theology, but I have seldom been attacked by liberals.  They, contrary to evangelicals, let any criticisms that they have of me to be known personally and directly.  Liberals write to me, call me on the telephone, or confront me personally, whereas my evangelical colleagues have a tendency to rumor and use the internet to destroy my reputation.  Having said all of this, it has not had that great an effect on my opportunities to do the work that I feel led to do.  I am now seventy-six years old, and to my critics on both the left and the right, I basically shrug my shoulders and move on with the tasks that lie before me.

What do you see as the most pressing concern for Christians today? And what should believers (regardless of their political stripes) be doing at this moment?

In answering this question, I think I can gain from support from thoughtful Christians across the theological spectrum.  I believe the most pressing concern is the way in which American Christians have allowed themselves to be seduced into a materialistic consumerism that has been nurtured by the glitzy shopping malls that have become the cathedrals of our era, and televisions advertising that deludes the viewers into believing on a subconscious level that their deep spiritual and psychological needs can be gratified by the purchasing of consumer goods.  It is not only that consumerism has led to people using credit cards to buy what they don’t need with money that they don’t have to impress people that they don’t know, but it has enslaved them to carrying enormous debts that hinder them from living out radical discipleship.  We have not listened to the apostle Paul, and we as Americans especially have become conformed to a consumeristic society, and are in danger of losing our souls.  In the process of satisfying the artificially created wants generated by the media, we have adopted lifestyles that require the consuming of non-renewable resources.  Consequently, while being only six percent of the world’s population, we are consuming forty-three percent of the world’s resources.  Not only are we personally in debt, but our consumeristic lifestyles have nurtured a federal government that follows the example of its citizens and has spent money that it doesn’t have, so that today our country is three trillion dollars in debt.  This of course will cripple future generations and beyond that make us beholden to those whom we are indebted to, such as the People’s Republic of China and Saudi Arabia.  We are losing our freedom as we have become captives to consumer goods, and the church has said little that would stem this tide.



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